You Get What You Pay For #2: Lettering Quality

Lettering StylesHow many times have you been in a cemetery and struggled to decipher the inscriptions on someone’s monument? Why is it that you’ll see a stone from 100 years ago that you can still read clearly next to a stone from 15 years ago that is already getting difficult to read?

Simply put, these issues of legibility boil down to how well and in what style the lettering was carved. Believe it or not, there are many variables and steps in the process of carving letters on a stone. This also means there are many opportunities for companies to take shortcuts and produce far below the highest industry standards.

These shortcuts are what make a new stone way too hard, if not impossible, to read way too quickly.

Here at Family Memorials, we strive to produce the highest quality product possible, so we don’t take those shortcuts. In fact, there have been instances when we’ve rolled a completed stone out of the shop only to realize we didn’t carve it up to our standard. What do we do when this happens? We carve a completely new stone up to our standard at no cost to the customer!

Let’s take a look at a few of the factors that need to be taken into consideration when carving a memorial stone. For each consideration, we’ll explain a little about it and then show how we’ve seen other companies do it compared to how we do it. Let’s go!


Lettering Styles

Important Considerations

The biggest consideration we need to make when carving any stone is deciding what style of lettering we are going to use. To do this we need to know what color the stone we’re carving is and how large the lettering is going to be. Based on these factors, we can then choose a style that will look the best.

Note: we’re not talking about font styles, but lettering styles. By this, we mean the method we use to sand-blast the lettering onto the stone.

Here are the five most common lettering styles we use:


Carbo Sunk: Carbo Sunk lettering (the first line in the below images) is perhaps the most versatile lettering style as it can be used on just about any color of granite. Carbo Sunk lettering consists of carving the lettering into a “frosted” panel. The panel outline and letters are both blasted into a deep “V”. (See the next section for why the deep “V” is important) The panel is blasted just enough to take off the polish. Together, the frosted panel and deep cut lines and letters create a highly legible inscription.

Skin Sunk: Skin Sunk lettering (the second line in the below images) is by far the least labor-intensive style of lettering, but it only shows up well on dark colored stones. This style of lettering is accomplished by blasting off the polish only, without any outline to create a sense of contrast from the surrounding polish. Skin Sunk lettering looks beautiful on very dark gray and black stones but is quite difficult to read on lighter colored grays, pinks, and browns.


Frosted Bar: Frosted Bar lettering (the fourth and fifth lines in the above images) is most commonly used on darker grays and blacks. It consists of frosted letters surrounding by a deep “V” cut outline. This font works well, but it also is limited in how small it can go. If the letters are too small, the small pieces inside of the As, Bs, Qs, & Rs are at risk of being blasted off during the lettering process.

Shadow Frosted Bar: Shadow Frosted Bar (the third line in the above images) is almost exactly the same as frosted bar except that the bottom-right lines are thinking to give the lettering the effect of having a shadow. This style is used almost exclusively for family names because they are typically the biggest letters on the stone. Shadow Frosted Bar is only used on lighter grays, pinks, and browns. If you used it on dark stones the “shadow” blends into the stone and causes the letters look misaligned.


How They Do It

You’d be amazed how often we see a beautiful stone that is ruined simply because it was carved using a lettering style not suited for that type of granite.

The most common occurrences are using Skin Sunk lettering style on light colored granite so you can barely see the lettering. This thing about this is it’s clearly a shortcut because Skin Sunk lettering is by far the least labor-intensive style. So, instead of taking the time and effort to use Carbo Sunk or another suitable style, they take the easy route and use Skin Sunk.

Another common problem we see is when Shadow Frosted Bar is used on dark colored stones. Not only is the “shadow” imperceptible, the lettering also looks funny, misaligned, and unevenly spaced.


How We Do It

We want all of our lettering and carvings to be as easily perceptible and legible as possible. Because of this, we won’t use any lettering style that will not contrast well with the granite that is being used.

We will only use Carbo Sunk, Skin Sunk, and Frosted Bar lettering styles with darker colors to ensure the contrast and legibility will remain for the life of the stone. We’ll only use Shadow Frosted bar on lighter colors so the shadow is easily recognizable and doesn’t blend into the stone.


Carving Depth

Important Considerations

The depth of carving may not seem like a major issue, but its effects on how a stone will look, especially in 10-20 years, are massive.

As we’ll talk about in the next section, everything that is carved is typically sprayed with a layer of “highlight” or “shadow” to increase the contrast. Eventually, this is going to be worn off by the weather. You can make anything look good using paint, but when the paint wears off is when the carving depth becomes important.


How They Do It

Many times we’ll see Skin Sunk lettering or carvings that appear to be wearing off, almost like the polish is coming back (which is impossible). Why does this happen? Because when the stone was being carved, the polish wasn’t fully removed. Instead, it was partially blasted off then covered by a thick layer of white “highlight”. This looks great when it’s first set, but once it wears off, it looks terrible.

In regard to deeper cuts that are made on lettering styles like Carbo Sunk, Frosted Bar, and Shadow Frosted Bar, the lines are often cut to a shallow “U” shape. It’s much quicker to just cut a shallow line and cover it with dark black paint to make it look good. Once the paint wears off, the line isn’t deep enough to cast its own shadow, which causes the lines to be very hard to see.


How We Do It

In regard to Skin Sunk lettering, we make sure all the polish is blasted off to a point where it can stand on its own. We’ll use a thin layer of highlight on it, but not much, because it already has a significant level natural contrast. So, in 20-30 years when the highlight does wear off, there will still be enough contrast by nature of the sand-blasting that the stone will look great.

Regarding the deeper lines in Carbo Sunk lettering and such, we ensure every line is blasted down to a deep “V” shape. This may seem like a minor detail, but it makes all the difference when the black shadow wears off in a few decades. Because the lines are deep and carved to a point, they will cast a natural shadow on themselves. This means that if there is natural light, the lines will still show up nicely.


Applying Highlight & Shadow

Important Considerations

Applying “highlight” and “shadow” is something every monument manufacturer does. The process, if done correctly, can really enhance the look and contrast of the memorials we are making. Eventually, the shadow and highlight will wear off. This will typically happen after 15-25 years if it’s applied correctly, but within 3-5 years if applied poorly.

As long as the lettering styles have been chosen correctly and the carving is done to a proper “V” cut, the stone will still look great, even after the highlight and shadow wear off. If the highlight and shadow have been used to cover up poor styles and carving, then the stone will look terrible.

Highlight: what we call highlight is a special application used by most monument manufacturers. It is designed to seal the pores that have opened up in a stone as a result of blasting away the protective polish. It also gives a bit of brightness to the frosted areas as well, hence, why it’s referred to as highlight.

Shadow: this is actually a stain specifically designed for use with stone called Lithochrome. It is designed to really soak into the sand-blasted surfaces and lines to enhance their contrast with the polished and frosted areas of the stone.


How They Do It

When you take shortcuts on the first to elements we talked about, lettering styles and carving depth, the easiest way to make the stone look good is to cake it with highlight and shadow. If you ever see frosted panels or lettering that is bright white, it’s most likely caked in highlight. Firstly, when it’s not designed to be used as white “paint”, it’s designed as a sealer. Secondly, when it’s painted on so thickly, it will begin, literally, to peel off in chunks within years. When that happens, you can see the work that was being covered by the “painted” on sealer.

In regard to the shadow, you’ll often see it peeling off as well. The reason this happens is that it is applied in a single, thick layer. This causes multiple problems. Firstly, it doesn’t guarantee that every surfaced that should be sprayed actually gets sprayed. Secondly, it dries as a layer on the surface of the granite and doesn’t soak in and stain the granite, therefore, it will begin to peel off, just like the highlight.


How We Do It

For both highlight and shadow, we use a spray technique that guarantees they are applied evenly, fully, and according to industry standards. We spray five layers, each layer from a different angle (straight-on, angled up, angled down, angled from the right, and angled from the left), and allowing enough time between each application for the previous layer to properly bond to the surface of the stone. This prevents the highlight and shadow from building up as a layer on the surface of the granite, which will prevent the peelings.

When applying the highlight, we use it as its designed, to seal the pores and add a bit of brightness to the frosted areas. We make sure the polish is completely blasted off, so the stone has a natural contrast and we’re not relying on the highlight stain to create the contrast. Yes, the highlight does add a bit of brightness, but that’s not our primary reason for using it.


The Highest Standard of Quality

At Family Memorials by Gibson, we strive to produce the highest quality product in the industry. This applies to every aspect of the manufacturing process, from the initial design all the way to set it in the cemetery. We want every monument we manufacture to be looking great, not in five or ten years, but in fifty and a hundred years!

This is why we hold ourselves to strict design and manufacturing standards when it comes to the lettering styles we use, how well we carve our stones, and how we apply any sealants and stains to the finished product.

We are confident that, because of everything discussed in this post, when you go out to a cemetery, our stones will always look nice and always be legible, no matter how long it has been!


Satisfaction Guaranteed

Nothing brings us more satisfaction than working with families to tell their stories in stone. We have offices throughout South Dakota and representatives in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. We also ship anywhere in the continental United States.

We guarantee that we will help you create a beautiful memorial for your loved ones. Give us a call or send us a message through our contact form at the bottom of this page.

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